The George Hackney Collection comprises original photographs, lantern slides and three small diaries covering his time at war between 1915 and 1917. It provides a unique insight into the impact the First World War had on the life of a young Belfast man.
The talented amateur photographer, George Hackney, was born in Belfast in 1888 and joined the Young Citizen Volunteers (YCV) from the Boy’s Brigade in 1912. He was part of a mass enlistment in September 1914, when the YCV was incorporated into 14 Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. Taking his new Klimax camera with him, George went to training camps in Donegal, Antrim and the south of England before sailing to France in October 1915. He survived the carnage of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 but was invalided out soon after, and was eventually sent to Sheffield to recuperate in September 1916. He spent the rest of his war in Ireland and England, working as a trainer.
Studio portrait postcard of Lance-Corporal George Hackney in uniform. BELUM.W2013.1.1
Young Citizen Volunteers
At Randalstown Training Camp
‘Some of Kitchener’s Finest’ was Hackney’s description of his YCV chums, sprawled in the sunshine on a table outside their hut in Randalstown training camp, where they had been moved to after a miserable, cold winter sleeping under canvas in the tented First World training camp at Finner, County Donegal.
In Adelaide Park, Belfast, July 1915
The YCVs pose with two young admirers after a mass Parade and Review of local battalions at Balmoral showgrounds in July 1915, prior to their departure for further training in England.
Training at Seaford, East Sussex, July 1915
The YCVs were sent to Seaford on the English South Downs for training, before being sent to France for action. Hackney recalled his unit being marched to Beacon Hill on trenching manoeuvres, taking with them mutton and raw potatoes which they cooked in their billycans to have ‘fairly good soup’. The hazards of training are illustrated by his list of the day’s accidents, which included ‘an officer thrown from his horse and suffering broken ribs; chap ran over by wagon; chap had pickaxe driven through hand’, and ‘three chaps with sunstroke owing to taking their shirts off while digging’.
‘Some of Kitchener’s Finest’. Maultsaid lantern slide, BELUM.Y15455
Adelaide Park, Belfast. Hackney album, BELUM.Y26402.25
‘Amateur Cooks’. Hackney album, Y26402.39
Last leave with Glen, September 1915
Like his colleagues, Hackney was granted a last leave before sailing for France and made his way back to Belfast on 18th September. Before he left he signed a document of understanding that failure to return on the given date automatically became desertion, for which he was liable to suffer the death penalty.
When he finally arrived home, after a journey of nearly twenty-four hours, his beloved dog Glen ‘nearly ate him alive’. He was only home for one full day before it was time to return to England and prepare for action.
Hackney album, BELUM.Y26402.139
En Route to France
En Route to France, 4 October 1915
En Route to France, 4 October 1915The YCVs sailed to France on an ex-Isle of Man paddle steamer named the ‘Empress Queen’. They were sent off with tea and cakes by the ladies of Liphook, and bid goodbye to England in glorious sunshine, ‘many of us wondering, doubtless, when we would have the pleasure of standing on the soil of our dear Homeland again’.
‘The Dear Old Blighty Boat’. Hackney album, BELUM.Y26402.49
On arrival in France
Gas Test, Beaval, France, 17 October 1915
On 17th October 1915, the Battalion was issued with new ‘tube helmets’ as protection against gas attacks. They were given a lecture on their use before testing them by going through a trench filled with gas, ‘which had no more serious effect than to give some a headache’. The next day, however, George felt very ill and was given two days of light duties and ‘a dose of something which nearly burnt the mouth off me … the hottest dose of anything I ever got’.
Trench Digging at Bertacourt, France, November 1915
The YCVs are digging a communications trench leading to the front, rather than a trench facing forward towards the enemy. The zig-zag form, known as a ‘traverse’, was designed to give more protection against gunfire and shrapnel than a long, straight fence.
Gas Test, Beaval, France, BELUM.Y26402.55
Trench Digging at Bertacourt, France, BELUM.Y26402.61
Christmas Day, Ailly, 1915
For the YCVs, preparations for their first Christmas in France started on Christmas Eve with decorating the billet with holly ‘etc’ and a representation of a boar’s head on a plate, made from mangols. Christmas breakfast for the Brigade was sausages and bacon, followed by a ‘great dinner of turkey, ducks and roast plum pudding’. They then held an impromptu concert, at which Hackney sang ‘The Rosary’, ‘Annie Laurie’ and ‘The Banks of Allen Water’.
Many of the YCVs, including Hackney, were total abstainers, and one of their constant complaints was the lack of a choice of soft drinks at occasions such as Christmas, when alcohol was provided for the men.
‘Christmas’ 1915.Hackney album, BELUM.Y26402.68
Ruins in Auchinville, France, 1916
In early 1916 George’s Battalion moved closer to the Somme Front, and evidence of the destruction wrought by war on the civilian population became more visible and more intense. His fellow YCV, minister’s son Paul Pollock, who was tragically lost in action, presumed dead, on 1 July 1916, wrote home on 9 March 1916 describing Auchonvilles as a ‘wreck’ which the Germans had been shelling ‘by day and by night’, and how the men were ‘living in cellars like the Stone Age’.
The Amert Swamp, Summer 1916
Conditions on the Allied front line in the run up to the Battle of the Somme were grim, even in summer. This photograph, taken by George at a distance, shows men washing in the river Ancre, surrounded by the swampy remains of the Theipval forest.
Ruins in Auchinville, France, Hackney album, BELUM.Y26402.82
The Amert Swamp, Hackney album, BELUM.Y26402.100
Life in the trenches, 1916
Soldiers in German trenches at ‘B’ Company Platoon Headquarters, Thiepval. Here, YCVs Gus Reid, Alf McGuigan and Harry Millar pose with a bag of grenades.
German Front-Line Trenches at Theipval, 1916
The objective of the Somme Offensive for the YCVs was to capture the Schwaben redoubt above Theipval, shown here in the centre of the photograph, with the town defences to the right. The white marks criss-crossing the redoubt in the distance are the German trenches.
German prisoners from the front line, 1 July 1916
A group of German prisoners under guard approach from their front lines, watched by YCV heads peeking out from the Allied trenches.
Life in the trenches, Maultsaid lantern slide, BELUM.Y15563
German Front-Line Trenches at Theipval, Maultsaid lantern slide, BELUM.Y15553
German prisoners from the front line, Hackney album, BELUM.Y26402.105
‘Dog Kennels’ at Red Lodge, August 1916
Unlike so many of his comrades, George survived the Somme Offensive, and soon found himself back at the front line. When not working at the trenches the soldiers were based in dug-outs; this one was ‘as comfortable as they could expect’, and a lot tidier after George and his companions had spent ‘about six hours burying all the jam tins etc that were lying about’.
‘Dog Kennels’ at Red Lodge, Maultsaid lantern slide, BELUM.Y15502
After the Battle of the Somme
109th Brigade Field Ambulance Station, Val du Maison, September 1915
After the trauma of the Battle of the Somme, working at the front line on trench repair affected George deeply. His nerves became so badly shaken that, at the end of August, he was sent to hospital in France ‘for a rest’, and was eventually ‘marked for Blighty’ with neurasthenia and dilation of the heart (also known as shell shock). He left for England ‘exactly two years after my enlistment’ and when he saw again the white cliffs of Dover he thought ‘I shall never forget the thrill that passed through me … I thought I had never seen so beautiful a view in my life before’.
Wharnecliffe Military Hospital, Sheffield, September 1916.
George’s stay in hospital did not shield him from war completely. One night not long after he was admitted ‘a Zeppelin passed right over … but did not drop any bombs until he was about three miles away, but even at that distance the explosions fairly shook our windows’. He enjoyed outings, and welcomed a great many visitors, who he knew mainly through church and holiday networks. He also submitted two clocks and a letter box to a ‘Red Cross Sale of Work done by Soldiers in Hospital’ which realised 22s 6d.
Larkhill, Wiltshire, 1918.
George eventually returned to active duties and spent the rest of his war as a trainer in the south of England. Note the expanse of white huts at this military training camp at Larkhill, spread out in the distance along Salisbury Plain.
109th Brigade Field Ambulance Station, Val du Maison, Hackney album, BELUM.Y26402.111
Wharnecliffe Military Hospital - ‘Our Ward’. Hackney album, BELUM.Y26402.113
Larkhill, Wiltshire, Hackney album, BELUM.Y26402.123
The end of the war
Garrison cinema on fire, Larkhill, January 1919
Although the First World War ended officially on 11 November 1918, it was not until well into 1919 that all soldiers were demobbed and returned home. This fire at the garrison cinema may have been accidental, or it may reflect soldiers’ frustrations at their continued separation from family.
Garrison cinema on fire, Larkhill, Hackney album, BELUM.Y26402.127
Veterans standing at the Stone of information, Wychate Ridge, Messines, 4 July 1956
George, seen here on the left of the group, was with a party of survivors of the Somme who made a Pilgrimage to Messines in 1956 to mark the 40th anniversary of the Battle. The stone marks the site of ‘Lone Tree Crater’, one of ten massive explosions detonated by the second army in July 1917 to enable the securing of the Messines Ridge. George was among the squads of soldiers who had tunnelled throughout June 1916 to lay charges totalling 91,000 lbs (41,277 kg) of explosive at a depth of 88 feet (27 metres) within the hillside of the Wychate Ridge
Veterans standing at the Stone of information, Wychate Ridge, Messines, Maultsaid lantern slide, BELUM.Y15590